The Spring House: Most Important “House” in Family’s History

The theme for the next Carnival of Genealogy is “Shelter from the storm, stories of the home and hearth…. It’s time to tell all about your family’s abode!”

The most important “house” in the Mitchell Family history was not an abode, but the spring house on the family farm in Guilford County, North Carolina. A spring house was a colonial version of a refrigerator – a crude structure built into the side of a hill with a spring running through it. The water from the spring kept milk, eggs, and other perishables cool. I wrote in more detail about what a spring house is and my experience of finding a real spring house behind a historic home in North Carolina. There’s even a photo of the spring house I saw.

The first book in my family history series was named Spring House because so many important events took place in that rough little building. I wrote the story as fiction so I could fill in the gaps when details weren’t known, but there is nothing in the book that contradicts known facts. I had Adam Mitchell proposing to both of his wives (his first wife died in childbirth) in the spring house, which may or may not have actually happened.

But the most important event that took place in the spring house is well-documented in historical records. During the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in the Revolutionary War, Adam Mitchell fought in the battle while his mother Margaret, his wife Elizabeth, and their children hid in the spring house on their nearby farm. They also hid a trunk containing an elegant collection of pewter plates and drinking vessels, most likely the largest collection of pewter in the state, with the mark of an M on each piece for the Mitchell name.

The following excerpts from Spring House show why this rough storage building was the most important “house” in my family’s history.

The spring house was about four feet high on the outside, but because the dirt floor was dug down two feet, a grown person could stand up inside. The spring house had only one opening – the door, which was no more than three feet wide. From a distance the structure looked like a clump of brush, making it the best place for the family in the event of an attack.

Stores of dried foods were neatly wrapped and buried in the dirt floor, and the spring water that naturally flowed through the spring house could support the family for an extended period of time. Elizabeth packed up her treasured pewter plates and drinking vessels that her father had given the newlyweds as a wedding gift. Adam thought it best to store the pewter inside the spring house in a large trunk under piles of his mother’s undergarments. If the pewter were to fall into enemy hands, it could be melted down for ammunition and used against the patriots.
A wounded British soldier seeking water found the spring house on the Mitchell plantation. As he drank water from the spring coming from underneath the spring house, he could hear movement and voices inside. He reported the incident to his superior who opened the small door of the spring house. Inside he found Margaret, sitting on a trunk dressed in her Sunday best clothes; Elizabeth standing beside her holding three-month-old Elizabeth, called Ibby by the family; and four young children – William, Margaret, John, and Adam Jr. – next to her. Margaret’s hoop dress with its many petticoats hid the hair trunk and fourteen-year-old Robert, who was behind his grandmother’s wide hoop dress and the trunk with his grandfather’s flintlock pistol cocked and ready for his grandmother to give the word to fire.

The British officer demanded that she remove herself from the trunk at once so that he could see what was in it.

Elizabeth’s children were afraid, hungry, and crying loudly.

Margaret Mitchell looked the officer squarely in the eye. “You have already killed my favorite nephew John. Most likely my only son has been killed in today’s fighting, as he hasn’t returned home. Your men have ransacked my home, taking the few possessions we had left, including food needed to feed my poor hungry grandchildren.” She leaned forward slightly. “Sir, you may kill this old lady if you wish, but I am not moving from this trunk.”

The officer, not accustomed to such defiance from a woman of his own mother’s age, turned and left the three generations of the Mitchell clan unharmed. It was a good thing he didn’t pursue the issue further as Robert was at the ready to fire on his grandmother’s order.

[tags]spring house, family history, genealogy, Carnival of Genealogy[/tags]

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